Supporting the Next Generation
This event was run jointly with NALD and the Arvon Foundation, on 15 September 2011, exploring the way forward for young writers and literature activists outside the formal education system.
Wes Brown reflects on the day:
To provoke and inform the discussion, NALD commissioned a number of leading young writers and activists to share their thoughts on how we can help the next generation to flourish. What do they want to see happen? What needs to change? What would flourishing mean? What’s working well?
Helen Mort, a poet and five-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet Award, argues for, “more low-key, constant set up support opportunities for young writers who are still experimenting with different ways of writing”. This is a powerful point. While there are many eye-catching and brilliant schemes – many brilliantly funded – long-term, low-key support can be equally valuable, if not more so. Helen reminds us that while young poets have plenty of opportunities, for something “to flourish and maintain its bloom, it needs to be nurtured and sustained as well”.
The pathways to support are changing. Adam Lowe, a publisher and novelist, cites the difference between the word-of-mouth and arbitrary Google searches he used to rely on to social media and the way the industry opened up as soon as he met key contacts. He makes the case that, “there needs to be greater recognition of the changing face of literature. A written work may now include multimedia and be interactive. There is a continued blurring between writing and performance, writing and art, writing and music.” Might the changing form of the novel lead to new kinds of writers? How well does the sector accommodate them? It’s vital we join up the dots of existing provision without directing it, to offer expertise without rules, without creating arts cartels and infrastructures run by the same people in the same way. The problem of an arts ‘establishment’ and the conventions of poetry are tackled by David Tait: “If we’re to believe what we read, very few operate outside of [the established] framework.”
David makes the case that too many are playing it safe. There are too many voices that are sub-Duffy or sub-Armitage. To use Harold Bloom’s figuring, too many are “suffering the anxiety of influence” and for poetry to truly “flourish”, poets need to be braver, and take on more “exciting range of subject matter”.
Being braver is the encouragement offered by Nici West. Young writers and activists should “be provided with support to become independent within the literature development industry, and no longer rely on larger funded organizations.” There’s a balance to be struck between support and setting people free. There is a danger that too much support, and dependence, forever being labeled a ‘young writer’ can act as a stabilizer and stop young people taking risks. For Nici, flourishing means “[making] that step from volunteering and participating in free work, to producing themselves.”
The volunteering approach can be problematic. Free time has its own expenses, leading Alex Pryce to soberly point out: “literature organizations might have to get used to those talents they want to work with passing up opportunities more frequently in other fields.” The underlying assumptions are changing and have to change to suit new developments: the economic downturn, the cost of Higher Education and the rise of digital technology means that the literature landscape is a changed place. Did the value attached to Higher Education institutionalize the practice and thinking of young writers? Alex argues that “the Arts need to consider if in some cases formal education isn’t exactly the answer [they’ve] recently become accustomed to it being” and asks: “in response to fees increases, do literature organizations need to rethink their recruitment strategies?”
The challenges for young writers go beyond the personal; they are strategic and economic. These challenges are real. Joe Kriss asks us to evaluate the current infrastructure and warns, “If there are not formal positions or opportunities available in arts organizations, writers and activists must have the skills to find their own income.” His position is echoed by Nici West: “If these new writers and activists are taught how to run their own organizations and market themselves by taking a grassroots and regional approach, they will also create new networks and audiences for literature.”
Tom Chivers, a poet and live literature promoter, has embraced the notion of creating new networks wholeheartedly and says: “Literature activists sometimes have ‘proper jobs’ but just as often they sit outside, or on the peripheries of, the professional arts or publishing industries. This is what entrepreneurship looks like, in early stages at least […] those with responsibilities to guide strategy over the entire sector need to realize this, and offer appropriate support and funding.”
Tom believes that “Activism is about risk. So it shouldn’t be too cozily supported by the ‘industry’.”
How can we support young writers and not be cozily restrictive? What do they want from arts organizations? How do we overcome the economic challenges? Where is the digital shift taking literature? These provocations certainly make for interesting reading and each shed light on a different perspective of life as a young writer and activist. The urgency of an uncertain future means that ‘to know and not to act is not to know’. Perhaps this is the true meaning of activism? If ever there was a time to rethink and evaluate how best to support young writers and activists, it’s now.